Last March, thousands of women and other reproductive-rights supporters descended on the Texas Capitol in an attempt to block the Legislature’s passage of draconian anti-abortion laws. Despite intense opposition and a dramatic filibuster by state Senator Wendy Davis, which launched her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2 in a special session last summer. The law’s supporters said they were only protecting women’s health by placing stricter regulations on health centers and doctors providing abortions, but most women recognized a thinly-veiled attack on abortion rights by a mostly male-legislature, a continuation of a war on reproductive rights that nationally has resulted in over 135 state statutes limiting abortion and reproductive rights.
The American Congress of Gynecologists and Obstetricians recognized this and denounced the law, saying it “plainly intended to restrict the reproductive rights of women in Texas through a series of requirements that improperly regulate medical practice.” The American Medical Association and the Texas Hospital Association were also opposed. Now this law is in the federal courts, the subject of a series contradictory decisions that began with a federal district striking provisions of Texas H.B. 2.
“The court concludes that the act’s ambulatory-surgical-center requirement, combined with the already-in-effect admitting-privileges requirement, creates a brutally effective system of regulation…” U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel
In a 26-page opinion, District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, appointed to the federal bench by George W. Bush, pointed out that the Texas law forces clinics to meet difficult and unnecessary surgical standards. “By requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges,” wrote Judge Yeakel, “the evidence is that there will be abortion clinics that will close.” Yeakel pointed to the populous Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border, which “…would be left with no abortion provider because those providers do not have admitting privileges and are unlikely to get them.”
On October 2, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas could enforce its new abortion restrictions while appellate court considered the ruling of the district court in Austin, and indeed 13 abortion clinics closed their doors.
On October 14 the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling and the clinics reopened. The appeal filed by the state of Texas is scheduled to be argued before the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans during the week of January 5. According to lawyers watching the process, the Supreme Court’s decision to intervene suggests that it might ultimately hear the Texas case.
Texas H.B. 2 is merely the latest assault on women’s health—in Texas and many other states. Twenty-five sates, for example, impose excessive restrictions on abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The law enacted in Texas followed on the heels of previous legislation signed into law by Rick Perry in 2011, which severely limited federal funds for Planned Parenthood. These legislative actions have done more than limit abortion. Planned Parenthood serves over three million women each year, offering services that include breast and ovarian cancer screening, and testing for sexually transmitted diseases; only three percent of its services nationally are related to abortion. According to the University of Texas-based Texas Policy Evaluation Project, “nearly 200,000 Texas women have lost or could lose access to contraception, cancer screenings, and basic preventive care, especially in low-income, rural parts of the state.” It is this class of women who’ll be especially hard hit if the Texas law and similar anti-abortion statutes in other states are allowed to stand. While women with means may be able to travel to a distant clinic, perhaps out-of-state, others don’t have that choice. In many ways, anti-abortion laws such as the ones in Texas are forcing women back to the days of unsafe abortions or having children they neither want nor can afford.
In her recent book, PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, author Katha Pollitt points out that nearly one in three women under the age of 45 has had an abortion, for varied and complicated reasons. I’m one of them. At a time in my mid-twenties, when I found myself pregnant, alone, and unemployed and made the difficult decision, I was fortunate that I had adequate and affordable health services to help me. Abortion is a legal medical procedure to which women should have safe access—without having to travel to another state or to a city more than 200 miles away, as the Texas law would force some women to do should it stand.
A few years back, I traveled to Nicaragua to report on anti-abortion laws then recently enacted by the government of Daniel Ortega. Doctors were forbidden to take any action in the care of women that might result in an abortion. There were instances in which women with ectopic pregnancies had died on operating room tables. I heard heart-breaking stories of poor and desperate women who’d died after ingesting pesticides in attempts to induce abortions. At that point, only a few years ago, this reality seemed far from mine and that of other American women. But with every anti-abortion law that chips away at the right to choose, that reality in not-so-far-off Nicaragua feels very close to home.
Maria Martin is the founding producer of NPR’s Latino U.S.A.